I recently started up a two man cabinet shop. My tools consist of two table saws, a panel saw, an upcut saw, a 37" widebelt sander, vertical line borer, bandsaw, and a drill press. Our problem is we just can't get our kitchens finished fast enough. We have approximately $15000-$20000 to put toward more tools. What tools would be the best investment to speed us up? If someone out there has a comparable setup to us, how long does it take to build an average kitchen from start to finish? We outsource our doors, so they aren't a concern.
That money would be better served as a buffer for your cash flow. The tools that you have are more than adequate for a two man shop. The tools in your shop will serve you well if you put them to proper use. Your process is your bread and butter. If you have a good, well thought out process to build your widgets, then you will be that much ahead of the game. If not, you could be in for a hard time.
There are countless threads on this forum about how to do this or that better. That is a good thing, but you have to be careful of the traps that most of us fall into. Mainly, tools. You might say "if I only had that new saw, or new boring machine, or new router..." The tool is only part of the equation. If you can build 80ft of cabinets per week and can only spray the finish on 60ft, then what good is a new $10000 slider that lets you cut the job out twice as fast? You must concentrate on finding the slow spot or bottleneck, then improve in that area. It is a constant process.
I have a 3 man shop now. We just took a long hard look at our process and made some very minor changes and managed to increase our production by 50% during the last 4 months. It was very hard to let go of doing things a certain way just because we were used to it. One thing that was a huge help for my shop was that we visited a large cabinet manufacturer. We got to see their 200 man plant in operation and saw some real great ideas that we applied to our process. That trip really helped us see what we were doing right and wrong. Building a complete process is not an overnight thing. It takes time.
It also makes a difference in what you offer. Those that offer a semi-custom cabinet seem to be doing better than most. They offer a certain amount of options as far as styles go, and they vary the widths to fit. Others that are building furniture-grade cabinets and are successful represent a very small percentage of us. They are privileged to have a clientele that can support them. They can provide the extras and get paid for it.
Another group is those that build custom cabinets trying to compete with semi-custom or mass-produced manufacturers. If you are in this section, move up in price or let go of details. Survey other cabinets in your area. Find out what others are doing and getting paid for. Find out what your customers want. Do they care that you have rabbeted backs in your uppers and lowers? Well, they will if you sell them on the virtues of this process. But will they be willing to pay for it, or will the guy who is faster, costs less, plants backs on the uppers and nothing on the lowers get the job? My guess it that the latter will be putting more money in his pocket, not because he has more equipment, but because he meets the customers' needs/expectations.
You can always find a way to spend your money on the latest and greatest equipment. And the pitches made by the salesmen are very convincing. But unless the process is there, the money will be spent in vain.
Want to get things out the door faster? Drink more Red Bull or Jolt Cola and consider your methods.
I had a customer who wanted an easy reach on the base and the uppers. She went to Home Depot to get a quote, and all they would offer in an ER was a 36"x36", which meant you have a 12"x12" opening for access to the cabinet. She didn't like it and wanted something with a bigger opening. I built her a 38"x38" ER, which gave her a 14"x14" opening and she loved it. That's where we can separate ourselves from the big chain store cabinets.
Experience tells me how long it takes to build my cabinets with the processes I have in place, so when I bid my price, I know I'm getting paid for my time. I don't have to rush like a mad-man to finish the job and sacrifice quality in the process.
I'm sure there are better ways of increasing my production, like having dedicated shapers for each task or an additional table saw to do dedicated tasks, but that means more money spent, which means I have to raise my price to recoup these costs.
I found that as I grew and had to hire more people and deal with more, I just didn't have the time to baby sit production and quality. As you grow and hire employees, it's harder to control your quality (it's like they say - the only craftsmen left are at Sears). At least that's what I found, so I took it out of their hands. It's a lot easier to turn down a pallet of parts than to eat the cost because my guys screwed up. My market allows me to produce this way and be one of the largest cabinet companies in town. There's not an easy answer to your question. It depends on what your market and customers want from you. Good luck trying to find the right one for you.
Comment from contributor G:
For the frameless cabinet - I didn't see an egdebander on the list. We machine all parts - edgeband, sand, finish, build. Cabinets with finish ends either get machined with biscuit joiner or pocket cutter, depending on the application.